Lessons from Analyzing the World’s Best Runners


At final yr’s World Track and Field Championships in London, researchers had 49 high-speed cameras rigged up within the stadium and out on the marathon course for a large biomechanics research led by a crew at Leeds Beckett University. If you’ve ever questioned in regards to the nuances of hammer throwing—must you spin 3, 4, or 5 occasions earlier than releasing your projectile?—then the recent release of detailed reports on 38 particular person occasions shall be a treasure trove for you.

Among these studies are some attention-grabbing nuggets on one of the best distance runners on the planet. During the marathons, which had been run on a four-loop highway course, the researchers used a four-camera setup to observe for delicate modifications in every runner’s stride, foot strike, joint angles, and so forth as they fatigued. During monitor races just like the 10,000 meters, they analyzed the pacing of every runner in 100-meter intervals all through the race along with amassing biomechanical knowledge. Here are just a few highlights from their findings:

The heel strikes again: One of the primary tenets of the barefoot/minimalist operating motion is that touchdown in your heel is unhealthy for you. And it’s true that studies of people that develop up with out sneakers in locations like Kenya present that they have an inclination to land on their forefoot or midfoot after they run barefoot. But what in regards to the elite runners who emerge from East Africa? Do they proceed to run that means as soon as they’ve entry to sneakers?

Of the 70 runners analyzed throughout the fourth lap of the lads’s marathon, 47 of them (67 p.c) landed on their heels, 21 (30 p.c) landed on their midfoot, and 2 (3 p.c) landed on their forefoot. The percentages had been related within the 78 rivals analyzed within the girls’s marathon: 57 (73 p.c) heel, 19 (24 p.c) midfoot, and a couple of (3 p.c) forefoot. And this sample wasn’t confined to specific nations or ending locations. In the lads’s marathon, the highest 4 finishers, hailing from Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Great Britain, had been all heel strikers throughout all 4 laps of the race.

This is especially attention-grabbing as a result of the concept elite runners don’t land on their heels is so pervasive. When Nike was growing shoe ideas for its sub-two-hour marathon challenge, they at 1 level produced a prototype with the heel largely stripped off to save lots of weight. The drawback was that just about all of the elite runners who tried it hated it, so that they ended up pivoting to the chunky, cushioned heel within the new Vaporfly 4% shoe.

Of course, there’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg drawback right here: do the runners choose sneakers with cushioned heels as a result of they land on their heels, or do they land on their heels as a result of it’s all however unavoidable when you’re carrying a cumbersome cushioned shoe? This research can’t reply that query, and certainly not ought to we now conclude that heel placing is “better.” But the declare that one of the best runners on the planet land on their toes—and the corollary that you have to be taught to do the identical if you wish to maximize your efficiency—needs to be deserted within the face of the brand new knowledge.

Fatigue modifications your kind: One of the complicating elements in discussing foot strike is that it relies upon what a part of the race you’re speaking about. Rose Chelimo, the Kenyan-born runner representing Bahrain who received the marathon gold medal, was a heel striker for the primary 2 laps of the race, however switched to a midfoot strike for the 3rd and fourth laps because the tempo accelerated. In the lads’s race, eighth-place finisher Daniel Wanjiru did the identical, although he was decelerating somewhat than accelerating throughout the 2nd 1/2.

There are some extra delicate nuances to fatigue-induced kind modifications, too. In a commentary accompanying the research, elite operating coach Steve Magness factors out that a number of runners begin to exhibit asymmetries within the fourth and remaining lap of the marathon. Fifth-place finisher Gideon Kipketer, for instance, had a virtually symmetric stride within the 3rd lap, with solely a 1-centimeter distinction between his proper and left stride lengths. In the fourth lap, the distinction ballooned to 9 centimeters. Similarly, seventh-place finisher Yohanes Ghebregergis’s asymmetry jumped from 6 to 11 centimeters. “As athletes fatigue,” Magness writes, “they start to compensate and their ‘weak links’ in the chain start to show.”

Another instance is cadence (what number of steps per minute you’re taking) and stride size. Most athletes enhance each these parameters after they speed up and reduce each after they decelerate. Men’s silver medalist Tamirat Tola, alternatively, pale after the 35Okay mark nearly fully resulting from a 14-percent lower in stride size, with little change in cadence. That’s uncommon.

These kinds of insights don’t lend themselves to massive generalizable conclusions—quite the opposite, they remind us simply how distinctive every individual’s response to fatigue is. But the rise of wearables is making this type of evaluation rather more extensively accessible. Someone on Twitter not too long ago requested me about data they collected exhibiting an more and more massive left-right asymmetry of their stride that begins after about 20 minutes of operating. While it’s arduous to know precisely what causes it, this can be a fairly clear signature of one thing going incorrect—and it will likely be straightforward to see if it’s getting higher after attempting issues like stretching, strengthening, or stride alterations.

The mirror might lie: For runners like Kipketer (or my Twitter correspondent), asymmetry might solely emerge with fatigue. But some runners have vital asymmetries proper from the beginning. Almaz Ayana, the 10,000-meter gold medalist and world record-holder from Ethiopia, had the most important stride asymmetry of anybody within the research—and it was obvious proper from the beginning. After 5 and 10 laps of the 25-lap race, 1 stride was 17 centimeters longer than the opposite; by the final lap, the distinction was 20 centimeters. That’s huge.

The massive query is what it is best to do with this knowledge. After all, Ayana is already one of the best 10,000-meter runner in historical past. Are we actually certain that “fixing” her stride would make her higher? The discovering is paying homage to the information final yr that Usain Bolt apparently additionally has an unusually asymmetric stride, exerting 13 p.c extra peak drive together with his proper leg than together with his left leg. That might outcome from a slight discrepancy in leg size, which suggests he has optimized his kind for his distinctive physique. “In other words,” Southern Methodist University researcher Peter Weyand instructed the New York Times, “correcting his asymmetry would not speed him up and might even slow him down.”

That caveat is one thing to keep in mind for all the information collected on the World Championships final yr—and for all of the wearable knowledge that runners world wide are gathering on themselves. If you need to tweak your individual biomechanics, step one is to gather a bunch of baseline knowledge to be sure to perceive what’s regular for you. Then make modifications slowly and cautiously, permitting loads of time to see if it’s having the impact you’d hoped and looking forward to any undesired uncomfortable side effects. And do not forget that, like Bolt and Ayana, a seemingly uncommon stride trait could be optimum for you.

Oh, and if you happen to’re nonetheless questioning: the theoretical optimum launch angle for throwing a hammer is 45 levels. In the 2017 World Championship remaining, the typical launch angle for one of the best throws of the 12 males’s finalists was 41.3 levels. Only 1 man, Poland’s Pawel Fajdek, exceeded 45 levels with 46.2-degree launch angle. He received the gold.

My new e-book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell, is now accessible. For extra, be part of me on Twitter and Facebook, and join the Sweat Science email newsletter.

(Editor references)

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